If you read my last post, you know that, for me, visiting the seafood section of Valencia's Mercado Central was akin to an art lover visiting the Louvre. Mindblowing. That same night I tasted the best the market had to offer at the city's best restaurant, Ca' Sento, which has received
2 stars (actually only 1 star, believe it or not--silly French guide) from the French Guide Michelin (although, aside from a location in a somewhat dicey neighborhood, it deserves to be upgraded to 3) and 3 solés from the more reliable Spanish equivalent, the Guia Campsa.
Within Spain, the chef of Ca' Sento, Raúl Alexandre, is renowned for procuring the best products, so I knew his restuarant would be my kind of a restaurant. As a devoted member of the Slow Food movement and a follower of Alice Waters, I am more interested in restaurants that value the intrinsic taste and characteristics of the raw product than in those that serve as a stage for a particular chef's creative whims. I want my food to express the unique taste of a particular place (local) and time (seasonal). While I admittedly do find some of the creative food amusing, in my opinion it appeals more to the intellect than the senses and the heart. I'll leave it to others to clamor to get a table at El Bulli or the French Laundry (although if you're planning to cancel those reservations, I'd be happy to help you out, for the sake of research).
This is a long, blow-by-blow description of my meal that I don't expect everyone will want to read. The important point is that I think what Raúl Alexandre is doing at Ca' Sento is what all chefs and restaurants should aspire to. It is what all fine dining should be about. The dinner, which I consider the best in my life up to now, highlighted the most pristine seasonal products available locally. I could not expect to eat this meal anywhere else and could never recreate it. My meal had what the French call terroir, a sense of place, and unfolded like a story or a painting of Valencia. The lesson, for me, is the importance of cooking with whatever ingredients are best where you are, of showcasing your region's finest jewels. (Click here for a slide show of the dishes).
My 14-course degustación de frutas de mar at Ca' Sento began with a simple house-cured anchovy fillet drizzled with arbequina olive oil and topped with a grilled halved scallion. Astonishing in its simplicity, nothing masked the flavor of the plump anchovy, which I believe came from the coast of Catalonia in the port of l'Escala, renowned for the finest anchovies in the world. My next amuse was a miniature cone filled with yucca and spider crab, followed by a cloud-like salt-cod croquette. The contrast in presentations between the naked anchovy and the more contemporary cone demonstrated that the kitchen would repeatedly juxtapose simplicity with creativity throughout the meal.
My next two courses were raw shellfish. Unfortunately, due to my spotty Spanish skills, I often missed the more subtle details of the dishes' verbal descriptions, including the exact origin of some of the seafood. All I can tell you is that the memory of the single, butter-tender raw clam still lingers days after eating it. It was topped, but not smothered, with a light foam that tasted like lemony olive oil. So this is how foams are meant to be used! The second raw dish was a single oyster with an apple foam that, again, enhanced the freshness of the product.
My next two courses were served cold and were shockingly naked. Even Alice Waters would be surprised at how unadorned they were. First came a single locally caught cigala (escamarlà in Catalan, langoustine in French, Dublin Bay prawn in English), filled with lots of tomalley. I was instructed that this and the next course were eaten with the hands.
The following dish was my introduction to the Gallician delicacy of percebes (goose-necked barnacles). I had read that they are an acquired taste, but I was immediately enamored and wondered where they had been all my life. To the uninitiated, they are a bizarre looking creature. They were served to me in a cluster, with algae still attached. To eat them, I pulled them one at a time from the rock they were clinging to and then twisted off the tough outer skin with my fingernails. This revealed a succulent morsel of meat which I bit off whole. Each bite tasted so cleanly of the sea. My waiter warned my that I would never again taste a percebe as good as this one, because the ones they get at Ca' Sento are the best.
The nakedness continued with my first hot course, a bowl of local clochinas, wild-harvested local mussels only available in June and July. They were served simply steamed, with a splash of olive oil. No butter, wine, parsley, pepper or even salt. They tasted so much like the sea that I wonder if they weren't cooked in a little bit of sea water. I have run out of ways to say astonishingly simple.
Next up was a beautifully presented shrimp and scallop, which I believe came from Tarragona. It's interesting that all my pictures are of the well-presented courses, while my fondest taste memories are of the simplest dishes.
Strike that last comment. The next course was both beautiful and its taste will never fade from my memory. Bogavante (llamàntol in Catalan, Maine lobster in the US) with porcinis. Such an unusual combination, a play on the Catalan fondness for contrasting mar i muntanya, sea and mountain, in one dish. The chef cloaked the tender lobster with a circle of mushroom gelatin and surrounded it with bright green parsley oil. Brilliant.
In Spain, ventresca de atún, bluefin tuna belly, is a summer delicacy. I enjoyed the melt-in-the-mouth quality of this fish, which was sauced with soy sauce, minced ginger, carrot, red pepper, chives, and I believe mint. You'll note in the picture that the tuna (I'd eaten half) was almost fully cooked (I would guess fried in olive oil), not the more fashionable rare. Again, I applaud the chef here. Tuna tastes best with a touch of pink in the center or raw. Rare seared tuna is just silly, a way to mask inferior fish.
Next came a single, plump local gamba de Valencia, roasted in a cast-iron skillet a la planxa, served with just a wedge of lime. Then, lubina al horno (llobarro al forn in Catalan), pan-roasted line-caught wild sea bass, served with green asparagus, a quarter of an artichoke and chives.
My final savory course was rossejats de fideus a la planxa, a beautifully presented dish of short thin noodles cooked in fish stock like paella, then seared until crispy and served with allioli, Catalan for aïoli.
I accompanied the whole meal with a bottle of Navarra chardonnay from Palaccio de Muruzabal, vintage 2000. Although with my first taste I was leery of its international style, it paired beautifully with the entire tasting menu.
My dessert was a playful ode to the apple, composed of a square foam of apple cider,a wafer of caramel flavored with apple skin, a confited apple core and a scoop of Calvados ice cream. When accompanied by a glass of rare sweet German eiswein that another table sent to me from their unfinished bottle, it was a refreshing finish to an unforgettable meal.